Memes and Politics: How to Get Elected in 2016

Every U.S. Presidential Election is entirely unique and reflects the views and makeup of a distinct and diverse country. This is no contrast to the current election and the media coverage surrounding it. One thing that makes this election different than any other United States election is the prevalence of the Internet, and more specifically social media.

There have been many studies about how the Internet has effected previous elections. The Internet is a place for politicians to reach out and connect with voters on a more personal level. It also allows for candidates to have a space for all of their policies and beliefs laid out in an interactive format. In previous elections politicians using the Internet have had mixed results. Some are able to harness the power of the Internet and use it in clever ways to advertise to the public and reach new audiences. One successful example of this was the Obama campaign. His campaign was successful in using technology in revolutionary ways. He was the first campaign, for instance, to advertise inside of a video game. Many researchers believe that his successful use of the Internet was one of the main driving forces behind his Presidential win. Not all politicians can be this successful. Others can come off as out of touch or unreachable. This was the case for presidential hopeful John McCain. He attempted to host an online meet up with voters to answer their questions, but due to high expectations and an inability to keep up with the demand of questions it left many supporters unhappy with McCain and his campaign.

Since the 2008 election it has become astronomically more important for politicians and other presidential candidates (I’m lookin’ at you Donald Trump) to have a handle on their Internet and social media presence. It is a very real concern for all campaign managers. It is the fastest and easiest way to reach out to young voters. As with any new communication medium there is debate and confusion over the most successful way to use this technology.

Campaigning through social media can be treacherous. It only takes one tweet, post, video, snapchat or meme to change the way you are perceived and reputation. Some politicians have learned this the hard way. Hilary Clinton has worked hard for her entire career to cultivate a certain reputation and history, but no amount of policy or history can define her entirely. Many young voters are looking for a candidate that they think will understand them and listen to them beyond just trying to pander in order to relate. Her tendency to try to pander to the youth vote was shown in a snapchat in which Hilary says “I’m just chilling in Ceder Rapids” but there is a certain sense that she is trying a bit too hard to join into a world of an app she doesn’t really understand. The most popular youtube video that has saved this video has been viewed over 800,000 times, and has been titled “’Just Chilling In Cedar Rapids’: Hillary Clinton Sends Snapchat Video… And It’s Awful” and features comments such as “this is the most cringeworthy thing I’ve ever seen”, “If this doesn’t seem forced as f*ck… I don’t know what does.” And “I love this video. It reminds me of when my mom first got FaceBook.” It is hard for candidates to predict the kind of content that online users want to see from their politicians. The second they use an app or technology it becomes uncool and “cringeworthy,” but they can’t be off of social media or they won’t be heard or known by younger voters.

One candidate who has seemed to win over the youth vote is Bernie Sanders. From my perspective as a 20-year-old American girl who is pretty well versed in the Internet, living in her own, probably liberal, content bubble, Bernie should be winning by a landslide. I can’t scroll through my Facebook feed without seeing multiple posts about him and his campaign. I think one of the reasons for his online success is due to him not trying to relate to students and young voters. He is not trying to live in our spaces and try on our culture, but he has built a strong platform on very liberal social policies and reducing student loans and debt, which is an issue very near and dear to millennials’ hearts. As a result of this, the memes have come to him. He is not trying to create content aimed at Millennials so they are making content to fit with him. One meme that viewed him favorably was the hype of “Birdie Sanders” which was art and tweets sprouting from an interaction when a bird hopped onto his podium during a speech. Another is “Bernie vs Hillary” memes, which are posters photoshopped posters distinguishing imagined policies between Bernie and Hillary. These topics are jokes such as the issue of “teacher forgets to check homework” with Bernie’s alleged policy being “*says nothing*” and Hillary’s being “excuse me, you forgot to check last nights homework.” In these memes Hillary is the uncool one, this phenomenon is explained simply by another Bernie vs Hillary meme. In this one the issue is “Appealing to younger voters” Bernie’s fake response being “doesn’t talk down to them like they are stupid” and Hillary’s being an actual screenshot from her twitter saying “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” A tweet that many young voters were offended by, thinking it reduced their problems and insinuated that they weren’t worthy or able to talk in an adult and complete format.

Bernie is a candidate that does not have the media support that Hillary has, so many young voters have taken it upon themselves to advertise and advocate for him as much as they can. This does not always end well. Some voters can be blinded by support and forget how important it is to question those running for office. Tumblr user Sansaslays was fed up with the way Bernie was being talked about by her contemporaries and wrote the following

“I’m a Bernie supporter but u all need to chill on calling him grandpa and a cinnamon roll and all that sh*t he’s still a politician you still need to be critical of him don’t fan girl over him that’s weird and I’m waiting for the “ur fave is problematic” post about him the way y’all glamorize him like he’s in a boy band or young adult novel turned film trilogy okay don’t put your full trust and adoration into him he has power he could be the president of the United States and not being critical of him is very not good okay always always always be critical of people in power no matter how much they align with your views you can’t trust politicians I’m sorry”

This post has gained 57,677 “notes” to date a note is when another user “likes” or “re-blogs” your post. Millennials are able to communicate with each other faster than any other generation and that means that as soon as a trend of calling Bernie a certain nickname or blindly supporting him starts it can be questioned and reviewed by other young voters. The pendulum has to swing both ways.

Many attribute Trump’s success to the fact that he is a political outsider. People seem to be fed up with the political machine and all that it implies. One way he shows that he is beyond politics is through his twitter feed. He has almost 7 and a half million twitter followers which is more than either Bernie or Hillary. He is known for being “real” and telling it like it is, which is due in part to the fact that he claims that all of his tweets are written exclusively by him, without media interns to filter him. This has been one of the hallmarks of his campaign and one of the reasons for his ongoing success.

Success is not guaranteed when a candidate joins the Internet and makes online content. Sometimes memes and other online jokes can be disastrous for politicians. One case of this is for Senator Ted Cruz. He has been accused of being the infamous Zodiac Killer. Most people who make these jokes understand that it is impossible for that to be the case, and don’t truly believe it, but online jokes such as this can have a powerful effect. In a “Public Policy Polling” poll it was revealed that 38% of voters believe that it is possible for Ted Cruz to be the Zodiac Killer. Polls are never entirely accurate and polling methods are inherently biased, but it is polls such as this one that prompted Cruz to joke about murder on a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel. When Cruz was asked “What’s your favorite cereal” he replied “now serial killer? Or Cereal?” The joke that started out solely on the Internet became so well known that a presidential hopeful had to go on national television and poke fun at the fact that he is not actually a serial murderer.

The current political climate is entirely defined by social media. Politicians are expected to be adept but not too savvy with technology. They are supposed to be real but still care and discuss their policies. They have to be professional and serious but never boring. It is a tightrope that all modern politicians must walk. Those who are able to walk it successfully will be successful as social media becomes even more popular among a more diverse voter population.